Who ate my chocolates?…

Who ate my chocolates? I am sure I had half of it left…or was it four blocks? Who ate my chocolates? Or, was it I that ate my chocolates? Or, what ate my chocolates?  Have you ever had to ask all these questions?  When you can even taste the aftermath of chocolate lingering in your mouth.  You know that there were still some chocolates left.  However, you still cannot tell…who ate your chocolates? Let’s not forget to add “why” did the “who” eat my chocolates? Or was it I that ate my chocolates? Why do I feel so strange? Is it because I ate the chocolates…and I ate it all?

When I reflect on the happenings in the world in the last year, it sometimes feels like there was a shift in gear and we were all transported to another planet in no time. The Corona pandemic has changed our lives forever.  It has shaken us and we have had to look in the daunting eyes of loss so many times in the months that have passed.  As a collective, the human race has lost so much, and the notion of individuality was severely challenged. We came to the realization that we are not so individual as we might have thought.  If one just thinks of how easy the Corona virus can spread, we understand the impact on the collective and we have all witnessed the consequences.  Now unlike the sweet, lingering taste of chocolate in the aftermath, the bitter aftertaste of loss still lingers in our mouths.

We see and experience this especially when we start questioning the aftertaste of the loss:  Why did I hug someone? Why did I have to go to the shop? Who did I get the Corona virus from? Who did I give the Corona virus to? Why can I not visit my ill friend or relative? Why did our loved ones die? Why did I not die? Why am I still alive?

In this endless list of “who’s” and “why’s”, a faithful friend called SURVIVOR GUILT is born.  Faithful, because it is not so easy to let go of this friend when it is time to say goodbye.  Faithful because this friend called survivor guilt returns many times.  For some, it may be easier to work with the acceptance and move on, but for many, this seems to be a great difficulty because friends are close and remain faithful. The suffering happens in silence and complex grief sets in.  There is a constant nagging feeling that you have done something wrong for merely surviving something tragic.  At this point there is the realization that there is no sweet aftertaste like the chocolate and smiles when looking for the missing chocolates.  Mental health professionals caution that if survivor guilt is not managed effectively, it could lead to anxiety, depression and PTSD.

Experts in the field share the following useful tips on how to deal with survivor’s guilt:

  • Give yourself permission to feel and express your emotions
  • Challenge the impulse to withdraw. Access support from others – family, friends, colleagues etc.
  • Instead of asking “Why me?” try “Why not me?”
  • Explore ways to express gratitude or do something good for others
  • Practice being kind to yourself – be gentle with yourself
  • Use compassionate self-talk and prioritize self-care
  • Seek support from a mental health professional if you start to experience suicidal thoughts or feel that you need to learn more constructive coping techniques.

As we look with hopeful eyes at the horizon to introduce a new dawn and an end to the pandemic, we take comfort in knowing that although our individuality was challenged, the collective became united to fight the pandemic and reach the shores of safety after the storm.  There is still a long way to go.  Many chocolates still to be eaten…many “who’s” and “why’s” … and the ultimate knowing that I am not alone.

Depression

“Mommy…what is deplethion?” I slowly look up from the book that I am busy reading.  I look into the big and sparkly eyes of my five-year-old daughter.  She smiles and I immediately catch a glimpse of the two missing front teeth which the tooth fairy so generously rewarded. I take it I did not hear correctly. I ever so politely say “excuse me dear, what did you ask?”. “Mommy! Do you know or don’t you know! You always say mommies know everything. So what is deplethion?”

I can clearly hear a note of irritation coming through as the little person in front of me challenges me with my own waft of wisdom I get to use daily and just because I am a mother. I actually did hear correctly.  The little angel in front of me asked me to explain to her what depression is.  My heart starts racing, I feel my head swinging and a warmth flushes over my entire body. “Where did you hear that word sweetheart?” I curiously asked. “Bombo on the TV said that Tombo was lazy, because he just sits there, does not want to eat, does not want to smile and sleeps all day long. So Tombo said he thinks he has deplethion because he is not a lazy person.” I listened attentively to some of the symptoms of depression being relayed by a five-year-old.  I stand there and think to myself that there is no way of stopping this train.  It started rolling and I have to jump on it. I gently take the hand of the little angel and started a story…

“One day, there was a little birdie called Mimmie.  She had a little house shop in the forest. All the animals always came to buy her lovely crispy cakes.  One day, the King of the forest, Leo the lion, announced that many animals were not feeling well and everyone must stay in their nests, coves, caves and holes so no-one else can fall ill. Mimmie was very upset because she had to bake every day. “Who will buy my lovely cakes” she wondered.  Everyone went into their houses and no-one saw each other anymore.  Sometimes they would meet at the waterhole, but could not talk because they were not allowed to stand close to each other.  Life for Mimmie and the other animals changed so much.  Mimmie did not want to eat anymore.  She had no appetite.  She did not feel like baking anymore. She did not know who will buy her cakes.  She did not sleep so well anymore. Every night when the stars shone bright, she was so worried and would think so much over what is going to happen. In the morning she was so tired and could not get out of bed.  She spent most of her days indoors and did not want to speak with anyone, even if she got the chance to.  Mimmie was just feeling so sad and down over everything. This went on for a long time.  Finally, the king announced that everyone may come out again as all the animals started getting better.  Everyone was so happy, but Mimmie could not come out.  She still felt so sad every day and although the animals begged her to bake again, she just could not do so.  Then they decided to make a new bakery for her, right in the middle of the forest and close to the waterhole where she could see everyone every day.  They wanted her to see that she is not alone and that they miss her too, especially her delicious, crispy cakes. One morning all the animals came together at the waterhole. Suddenly they saw Mimmie coming along to collect her morning water.  She still looked so sad and even thin.  They were determined to have their old friend back.  As she came close to the waterhole, everyone jumped forward and shouted “SURPRISE!! We love you Mimmie!” Mimmie was startled and could not believe her eyes.  Her friends had made a new bakery for her – close to the waterhole where everyone could see her and she could see them.  Her heart leaped and she was overwhelmed with joy.  Everyone came to hug her and welcome her back.  She did feel better to see them all and thanked everyone one by one.  “I missed you all, and it feels good to be back”, she smilingly said.

I looked at the smiling face of my little one as she listened to the ending of my story. “Ladybug…do you think that Mimmie was lazy when she did not feel like baking anymore? Or when she was feeling all alone and sad? Or even when she did not want to eat or could not sleep. Do you think that she was lazy?” I watched as her head was slowly rocking from side to side and she said “No mommy, I don’t think she was lazy.  Maybe she was like Tombo.  He was also like that.”  Then suddenly I saw her eyes lit up and she excitedly asked: “Mommy, do you think that is deplethion? Tombo and Mimmie had deplethion? They are not lazy!”.  I smiled and was amazed at how quick the connection came. I answered “Yes baby, those are some of the things people with depression may go through”.  “MXM! Silly Bombo!”, the little miss clicked her tongue and walked out the door to find her puppy friend.

At the onset of international lockdowns all over the world in 2020, many people struggled with coping with the demands of the lockdowns in order to curb the spread of the Corona virus.  Many people could successfully move through these massive changes, but for many people the change in reality was just too strange and impactful.  Mental Health Professionals suggest a few coping strategies for individuals struggling with depression:

  • Medication and or Psychotherapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – CBT and others)
  • Following a healthy diet and exercise routine daily (even for short periods of time)
  • Setting structure to the day by following a guided time-table
  • Set realistic and small goals for each day, then week, then month etc.
  • Attend a community support group or online support group (SADAG)
  • Adopt a hobby – like painting/doodling/scrapbooking/riding a bicycle (the possibilities are endless…)
  • Allow family and friends to provide support, love and care during these trying times
  • Take care of and be gentle with yourself

While we all try to settle in with our new reality caused by the Corona virus, it has become so important to be mindful of what people around us go through. Before we judge and think it is mere laziness, we may want to stop and take a look and listen to the possible outcry for help…

Peace in this valley called HOME

It is Monday morning.  It is the month of October.  The year is 2019.  With much resistance, I have dragged myself out of my very snuggly and warm bed to get ready for work.  I check my messages on my phone.  Lift-club is not happening this week, so I have to drive myself to work.  Someone has a tummy bug, so we better all be cautious, just in case… We finally leave the house; I drop off big and small living in my house for them to start the day. Then I join the river of cars in one of Johannesburg’s busiest roads which leads to the hub of the business centre.  As I watch the car ahead of me, hypnotizing me with its brake lights, and Bruno Mars singing a fading “When I see your face…”, as the news bulleting commences on the radio station, I start praying.  I find myself praying for the traffic – for it to stop – and go away – so that I can have a break – so that I can sleep late and have coffee in bed – so that I can wear my slippers all day and not comb my hair – so that I can have a sandwich on my couch and tea in my favourite cup by midday – so that I can pull my best friend called the laptop closer and start working at 14h00 – so that by 17h00 when daddy dearest arrive with all our offspring he can start supper while I take a pre-nocturnal nap – so that later I am fresh and ready to catch up and Binge a little on Netflix – AMEN!  Please put up your hand if you can relate to my urgent outcry for deliverance as in my prayer above.  Yes, I see your hand.  I appreciate your honesty – thank you so much.

Now I had a very special Grandma. She said things the way they were. Many a time in my life, from her wise mouth I heard: “Be careful what you wish for dear. It may just come true”.  I’ll give you one opportunity to guess where all South Africans (like myself) found ourselves on the 27th March 2020 after the big announcement from our president earlier that week?  Yes, you are right.  We all woke up to a VERY silent South Africa because the national lockdown regulations of the Covid Pandemic determined that for a few weeks in this country, no one will be going anywhere.  If anyone were to go anywhere, they would be few in numbers and only really if it was essential.  I could not believe my ears! It was like a dream come true – the very “traffic prayer” was answered!

With great excitement and disbelief, I joined the bandwagon of eager shoppers to stock up on groceries and other essentials in the house.  My heart was racing as I chose item after item while trying to gauge how long each will last. Suddenly I had to cater for everyone’s individual needs. I also had to make sure that all the snacks and sweeties were exactly that which were requested.  Eventually, the long-awaited day dawned.  The national lockdown has begun.  No walking in the streets allowed, no driving around, no visiting friends and family, no schooling and only working from home will be allowed unless you are an essential worker.  This was too good to be true!  The long-awaited break I was praying for – it is being answered! My dream of staying at home and having a break – it is actually coming true!  Or so I thought…

Week one at home with my true love daddy dearest was awesome.  I even shed a tear or two (of joy) when I watched him play with our little ones as he explained that as a family, we will now spend time together at home doing schoolwork and working because no-one in South Africa is allowed to move around as per usual.  Week two was a little bit more challenging.  My time seemed not to be my own. I just made too many sandwiches per day. By week three, the demands from father and children became unbearable. Please let me add little doggy who also had its own requirements suddenly because walking in the park was now prohibited. I could actually not believe that there was a week four and more…

Just as the experts predicted and observed, working from home as the “new normal” is like expecting people to change form like in the movie Transformers.  Although time and other stressors like travelling to the office suddenly seemed much easier, the isolation and social interaction could in effect lead to depression and anxiety for many people.  The new culture of working from home could lead to a struggle of maintaining healthy boundaries and poor family relations.  It is found that people work much harder, take less breaks and work into the wee hours of the morning and even over weekends.  It has become common for colleagues to contact each other after 6pm at night or even later because the perception has been created that everyone is and will be available if needed.

The following are some useful tips to manage the telecommuting situation and create a healthy balance between work and home life:

  • Plan a schedule – have designated tasks and times for everyone in the household; create routine (children enjoy routine)
  • Designate spaces – if possible, keep work space separate from sleep space and relaxation space
  • In the morning, dress as if you are going into your workspace or office – then later, get back into comfortable “home clothes”
  • Take regular breaks – enjoy a tea break and have lunch
  • Minimize social media distractions – only log in periodically in order to remain focussed on home and office tasks
  • Set and maintain boundaries – disable mobile e-mail apps on your phone, and set an alarm to remind you to switch off computers when the workday is over. Include your work hours in e-mail signatures and update status with away/not available messages for those unexpected calls after 6pm.

Expectations on the home and work front have increased and this has led to many people feeling incompetent and unsupported. Our general well-being as humans have been challenged like ships sailing unchartered waters.  All the stress, depression, fatigue, quality of life, strain and happiness has been thrown into one pot – and then we watched as it all cooked together and expected the perfect tasting dish ever found on earth.

Mental Health experts advise that the awareness of setting the bar too high for ourselves, is key to the maintenance of mental health during these challenging times.  We should know our limits to adaptability in order to cope with the “newness” created by the Corona Pandemic.  Telecommuting is here to stay, and although there are many benefits to it, personal care and our own mental health comes first.  Most importantly, the peace in the valley called home is the foundation and key determiner of our arrival after the storm caused by the Corona Pandemic.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Growing up as a child, we often use to play “cowboy and crooks” or “robbers and police” or role-play being in a war (like in the movie “Saving Private Ryan”), or doctor-doctor, and so the list goes on.  We use to have toy guns, or long sticks, like bamboo rods which, in hindsight, could have poked our eyes out. We attacked each other with mud bombs and coloured our faces with old shoe or floor polish – red or black as camouflage.  In the innocence of a child, I never would have thought that our little “creative games”, which was the source of a lot of fun and excitement and sometimes a blue eye or bruised knee, was actually a real and big issue in the adult world.  Many years later, upon enlightening myself with more knowledge around issues in the adult world, I discovered that these little games of ours, actually had a much different effect when it was “played” in the real world.

I learnt that for adults, instead of experiencing it as fun and excitement accompanied by lots of laughter and sometimes embarrassment if you lose, it had a much deeper and intense experience than what I believed as a kid.  It was nothing so positive. In the adult world, I discovered there is even a name for it – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.  According to experts in the field, PTSD develops when one is exposed to a traumatic event or if someone close to us have such a traumatic experience.

I remember that as kids we would go back to the same “rock of defeat” quite a number of times.  We would try to beat the winners over and over again until we were crowned the champions.  In the adult world, people may be diagnosed with PTSD, and I have learnt that it actually works the opposite way for many people. Some people respond in such a way that they refuse to revisit the place where the actual trauma happened or avoid it at all cost. It may even become extremely difficult to speak about the trauma for many years.  Normal reactions to trauma include feelings of anxiety, intense emotions, sleeplessness (insomnia) and intense anger.  When all of these symptoms are experienced for a duration of two weeks or more, and if it impacts on the daily normal functioning of the individual, we now know that there may be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which may need to be addressed on a serious level with professional help.

The Corona pandemic that hit the world so unexpectedly, has left many people devastated and reeling in shock due to the trauma and life-changing events many had to face. The long periods of isolation, fear and worry have come like the long bamboo rods once used for fun, and poked out our sense of hope and meaning to life.  Many faced their own death or the death of a loved one and people very close. Mental Health specialists advise that during this time, PTSD may develop and one should be aware of the symptoms in order to seek help.

The hope we keep is that PTSD can be treated with medication, therapy or a combination of the two.  When we see that someone has reached the “rock of defeat”, it is time to stretch out our arms and help so that we fight the battle and its aftermath together…like with little children throwing mud bombs and swinging sticks in their innocence, to be one day crowned the champions.

We see doctors and other health care professionals work tirelessly to save lives and care for those who face the reality of the impact of the pandemic.  This reminded me of the small pink sweeties we use to hand out as medication for those our fellow friends, who suffered the attack of a mud bomb or a bruised knee.  I still hold the memory that as kids, we just never gave up. We picked up our swords and off to battle we marched – time and time again.  I gain comfort in the knowledge that as humanity, we are actually more resilient than we think.  As little kids we already prepared for the battles of life. As adults we forget how many times we faced and conquered these many battles.  We forget that there are others to help us in the battles of life.  Then I draw hope when I realize I can face and overcome any illness, even PTSD. My heart feels warm because I also know that even as adults, we will be crowned as champions…

BREATHE…BREATHE…BREATHE…

Breath, Anxiety, stress, Vista Clinic Blog, mindfulmoment

The only time I took the word “mutate” or “mutant” seriously, was in much earlier years where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were of interest to my young mind.  These days, I observe how many times I encounter this word, and it has absolutely no goal like the Mutant Ninja Turtles had back in the day.  The focus now is on how slow or how fast viruses like the Corona can become more dangerous and deadlier.  With that being said, the “mutation” of the Corona virus has now led to the grim reality of facing waves similar to that which the Titanic sailed upon years ago.

In South Africa, we are facing a possible third wave according to many health professionals.  We are advised to be aware. And perhaps even get prepared.

“What do I do?”, “What do I buy?”, “Will I get it this time round?”, “Will I get it again?”, “Do I vaccinate?”, “Do I not vaccinate?”, “Will we go back to level 5 restrictions – or level 3 or remain on level 1?” The list of questions is endless.  All the while I stand in the isle of the supermarket and think… “baked beans?” or “toilet paper?” Which one will in this round be the winner of the most sought-after grocery item?  I start to panic and I feel the anxiety creeping under and into my skin like a lazy anaconda. I do not know the answers to these questions. Clearly, my mind has gone into survival mode. And it refuses to acknowledge that the overdo of the first mentioned grocery item could possibly lead to the over-usage of the latter mentioned grocery item.  I smile, because I saw the light (or was it the toilet paper, I wonder?)

DO WHAT MAKES SENSE – AND YOU WILL SURVIVE – BREATHE…BREATHE…BREATHE….

It is often suggested that anxiety caused by panic, can be extremely debilitating.  Experts sing from the same hymn sheet when they say that learning how to breath effectively in such circumstances, can be more constructive than robbing our bodies from oxygen or providing too much oxygen when in a state of panic and experiencing anxiety.  Here are some useful exercises on how to regulate our breathing in these difficult times to ensure that we give an “encore” to the experts:

ABDOMINAL BREATHING
Exercise specifically used to learn and maintain abdominal breathing

In an upright posture, inhale and exhale normally while holding one hand on stomach in order to feel movement and confirm abdominal use

GROUNDING
Grounding is used to alleviate anxiety

When a person gets “caught” in anxiety the brain is going along a thought pattern that is causing that anxiety. In order to alleviate that anxiety, the brain must be “bumped” off that thought pattern. In order to do that the brain’s focus must be changed. To do this the brain has to be forced to refocus on “something” else. This is done by doing an activity that requires cognitive focus and thought. This is where breathing is useful. Forcing the brain to focus on a specific method of breathing will achieve this.

CONTROL PAUSE
(checking your level of breathing)

This exercise is useful as a tool when shortness of breath, due to anxiety, is experienced

It can also be used as a grounding tool

This exercise will also alleviate asthma and sleep apnoea symptoms

This exercise is used to check on progress and to ascertain at what level breathing is taking place (Lower 10 bad – 10 – 20 acceptable – 40+ good, but will only achieve by including physical activity)

(short breath in – short breath out) hold and count until air hunger

PULSE
Taking of the pulse can be used as a grounding tool, as tangible element i.e., feeling how one calms down

With more practised or very light panic attacks, pulse taking can also be used for grounding

Gently place 2 fingers of your other hand on this artery

Do not use your thumb, because it has its own pulse that you may feel.

Count the beats for 30 seconds, and then double the result to get the number of beats per minute.

After discovering all of the above exercises (and so much more), I feel like a soldier – equipped and ready for battle.  I feel calmer knowing that a small thing like breathing can help me to choose: baked beans or toilet paper. I smile again…and I remember to BREATHE…